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The Ratings Game



Dodgers Outfielder Yasiel Puig has taken the baseball world by storm over the past six weeks, yet casual fans haven’t seemed to notice much.

We’ve reached the traditional finish to the first half of the major league baseball season (even though nearly 60 percent of the season has been played), and boy, what a first half it has been. The storylines include the reigning triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera putting up video-game numbers (.365/.458/.674, 30 HR, 95 RBI–according to MLB Stats he could go hitless in his next 79 at-bats and still hit better than .300), a guy in Chris “Crush” Davis who hit more home runs by the break than anyone besides Barry Bonds (and his 37 are four less than he’s had the last three seasons COMBINED), a 22-year-old kid from Cuba named Puig who hasn’t stopped lighting up Hollywood since his call-up in June, becoming ESPN’s new lovechild in the process, and five of the six division races separated by just 2.5 games or less. It’s going to be a fun second half. So why aren’t more people watching?

According to Awful Announcing, MLB on Fox failed to draw a 2.0 rating in each of its first six telecasts this season (for perspective, Nascar’s Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire on Sunday did a 2.8 rating–on TNT). ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball dipped as low as a 1.2 for a Memorial Day matchup with the Braves and Mets. The ratings plunge has been a trend in the past decade. Take a look at these charts from


In Chicago, as of June 11th, the Cubs regular season games averaged a 1.7 rating on Comcast SportsNet, down 15 percent from that point last season, according to White Sox games have been even worse–averaging a 1.3, down 24 percent from a year ago. Now, since both teams stink, this isn’t exactly shocking news. Baseball is a regional sport, and ratings in markets like Detroit and St. Louis, where the teams are contenders, continue to soar. But is winning the only thing causing the casual fan to switch from Man vs. Food to Sale vs. Cabrera? I think baseball is far behind its major sports counterparts in attracting fans to games beyond the scope of their home teams. MLB isn’t doing everything it can to capitalize on the national narratives it has going for it currently. The overall health of the sport is fine (the last nine seasons, 2004-2012, have produced the nine-most attended seasons in baseball history, according to Forbes), but the television ratings downward slope and overall image of the game should cause some alarm bells to go off. Here are some possible solutions.


The most obvious and fixable problem with baseball is the length of the season. 162 games plus a month of playoffs is ridiculous in the current culture. Folks already complain about the length of games (as of last month, games averaged 2:57:53, which would tie the all-time high set in 2000, according to the Boston Globe). Combine that with the interminable season schedule, and the society of now and instant gratification is bound to turn away. Of course, purists will always argue the beauty of the game can be found in its nuances, which can only be played out in a space without a clock and a season that stretches six months. But Major League Baseball, contrary to popular belief, has actually adopted new rules and policies several times in its 137-year history, and one of them has been schedule length.

The modern 162-game schedule has now been in place for 51 years, back when there were only 18 teams in the league. From 1888 to 1961, the league schedule went back-and-forth from 142 games to 154 five different times (with a five-year switch to 132 games in 1893). Baseball has always employed the longest season of the major American professional sports for several reasons: it’s not as physically taxing as football or hockey; there is natural rest allotted for players taking the most toll on their bodies (starting pitchers) by only playing every four-to-five games, etc. Baseball is a grind, but to imagine an NBA player playing 40 minutes a night for 162 games a season is nearly impossible.

The solution? Chop off the first and last months of the season, and play a 96-game slate starting May 1st. Suddenly, you remove the cold, miserable April games played in climates like Cleveland and Minnesota who use outdoor stadiums meant for warm summer months, not games where this happens.

You also create urgency right off the bat and keep fans (and players) more engaged with pennant races that don’t last three times as long as a Kardashian marriage. Look what happened when both the NBA and NHL shortened their seasons because of separate lockouts. They went from 82 games to 66 and 48, respectively, and the regular season felt more entertaining to fans, an experience to savor instead of just a heavy, time-consuming appetizer to digest before the postseason. Those shorter seasons crammed too many games into such a short period of time, creating sloppy play and resulting in too many injuries that routinely found critics blaming the season length. However, this wouldn’t be the case in baseball. Teams already play six to seven games a week for six months and, if they are lucky to survive that, play three seven-game series to determine a champion. It’s a lot of baseball in a cramped time frame.

By cutting 40 percent off the regular season slate, baseball can now breathe a little bit, and still play more games than any of the Big Four leagues. With the reduced game-schedule, every team would get one off day a week (either Monday or Thursday), ensuring no stretches of 20-plus games in a row for some teams without an off day. Removing the rainy (and sometimes snowy) April from the docket also cuts down on postponed games that have to be rescheduled during the season. The real ratings trouble happens at the end of the season, when football kicks off again and fans turn their attention elsewhere. With the new shortened schedule, the regular season would end in late August, allowing fans to fully invest in pennant races without NFL or college football games interfering yet. The MLB playoffs would be in September, but playoff games should only be scheduled on Tuesday-Saturday, as to not overlap with the NFL, which would no doubt diminish ratings (we’ll take our chances with the college football crowd on Saturdays).

While we decrease the regular season length, we can then extend the playoffs by adding more teams. MLB already made a wise choice last season adding the second wild card team, allowing five teams from each league (33 percent total) into its postseason. This still lags behind football (12 total playoff teams, or 40 percent of the league), and far behind the NBA and NHL (16 total playoff teams, 53 percent). The NBA and NHL playoffs are long as it is, so I’d be in favor of six teams from each league making the postseason as opposed to jumping up to eight. With this format, the only logical way to work things out is to give each division winner a playoff spot, along with the next three best teams in the league, regardless of division. The two teams with the best records will get byes into the second round (again, this could mean they come from the same division, a la the Pirates and Cardinals this season). The three seed would play the six seed in a best-of-five series, the four seed getting the five seed also in a best-of-five. The lowest seed remaining plays the top seed in a best-of-seven, with the other two teams playing each other. The NLCS, ALCS and World Series would also be best-of-seven.


Along with a shorter season schedule, the major networks airing MLB games in primetime need to do a better job of showcasing the top players and teams in the game as the season goes along. For instance, Yasiel Puig was called up on June 3 and instantly ignited the league with his 5-tool arsenal rarely seen so early in a player’s career. Bar none, he was the most talked about player during the last six weeks. However, not one ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game (the equivalent to the NFL’s Monday Night Football telecast) included Puig’s Los Angeles Dodgers. Why not? The league set its Sunday night games through mid-July way back on May 29–five days before Puig’s call-up. Bad luck? Certainly. But what the MLB and ESPN should have done is employ a flex schedule similar to what the NFL and its Sunday night showcase on NBC work out.

Flex scheduling begins Week 11 in the NFL, and ensures the fans a marquee matchup for the final quarter of the season. It’s a smart, ratings-driven tactic that has worked. According to, the announcement of which game gets “flexed” comes no later than 12 days before the scheduled matchup. If the NFL can change a game time with that short of a turnaround, there’s no reason the MLB can’t as well. And the league shouldn’t wait until the second half of the season to do so, either. Not one Sunday Night Baseball game in the final five weeks of the first half (and the first week of the second half coming up this Sunday), included Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis or Yasiel Puig, the three biggest player storylines going this season. Instead, we were force-fed two Yankees-Red Sox match-ups (which I can probably speak for most when I say those outside the East Coast are tired of), and not one, not two, but three games featuring the St. Louis Cardinals, which is understandable because of their record but overkill in that amount of time. Baseball has to continually look to showcase its best stories and talent during its marquee stage week-in-week-out, and it starts with flex scheduling more in tune with the NFL.


Finally, player marketing needs to improve. The NBA is commonly regarded as the league of stars because we see those players in the flesh, unencumbered by helmets or hats. We see their faces more, and therefore we recognize and identify with them easier (unlike some Mets fans have been able to do with their own Matt Harvey). The best NBA players are also the ones we see most often on our TVs when they aren’t in a game (think Chris Paul and his State Farm commercials, Blake Griffin and his KIA ads, Derrick Rose and Adidas, Lebron and Nike, etc.) But where are the baseball stars? The best player in the league, Miguel Cabrera, hasn’t hit it out of the park with endorsers for a couple of reasons, both of which I don’t agree with.

The first is the language barrier. Cabrera is Venezuelan, and doesn’t speak perfect English. So what? He’s the best hitter on the planet and should be the face of the sport. Does Chris (or Cliff) Paul speak in his State Farm ad? Nope, its voiced over by a narrator. There are ways around the language gap, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not highlight the game’s best talent. The other reason companies aren’t flocking toward Cabrera with seven-figure endorsement deals is because of his past off-field issues. Cabrera has a sketchy history with alcohol abuse, arrests–he was charged with DUI in 2011 and in 2010–and domestic violence, as his GM had to pick him up from a police station in 2009 after Cabrera fought with his wife (drinking involved). However, that was before his Triple Crown season of 2012, and his current first-half of unprecedented greatness. If Josh Hamilton can get endorsement deals with Vita Coco water after overcoming his off-field issues, there’s no reason why Cabrera, a player out of Hamilton’s league at this point, can’t grab a bigger endorsement deal and more TV face time.

If the only difference is their skin color, that’s unfair. Bryce Harper is a budding star–and white–and naturally, he’s a key component to MLB’s marketing campaign. And he should be, with such big-name sponsors as Under Armour. But more stars, no matter their ethnicity, need to be highlighted across media platforms. From what I’ve seen, baseball stars are still trailing their football and basketball counterparts in this crucial area to increase the sport’s popularity beyond a regional game.


These aren’t the only areas of the game that need to be improved, of course, but they are a start. I think the media as a whole can do a better job highlighting the game (I’m looking at you, ESPN, running more off-season NFL, NBA and college football news during the summer than baseball stories). I also think generating more interest in the fantasy baseball game (or wagering on baseball in general) can be explored because we all know how much that drives football ratings on Sundays in the fall. If you have more than just a rooting interest on the line, you are bound to watch more games which don’t involve your favorite team.

Baseball is a stubborn sport. Change spreads through its pores slowly. I love the history and uniqueness of the game as much as any fan, but I also recognize its lag behind other sports nationally. Keeping every element of the game the same for the sake of  “we’ve always done it this way” won’t cut it anymore. New rules on video replay and the added wildcard team are steps in the right direction to raise the game’s profile. I hope they continue.

The second half of the season should be filled with compelling division races, another triple crown chase and a potential 60 home run season. Just make sure to tune in, or you might just miss it.


White Sox Trade Deadline Targets

With the White Sox out of contention and the trade deadline rapidly approaching, Rick Hahn (left) and Kenny Williams (right) have a number of big decisions to make.

The White Sox have lost a lot of baseball games this season. They rank in the bottom half of the league in every facet of the game: offense (29th in MLB), defense (22nd), and starting pitching (18th). While this year has been largely unwatchable sans every Chris Sale start, the most exciting part of the season is approaching: the trade deadline.

Recently, the Sox shipped out Matt Thornton to Boston in return for Brandon Jacobs. Thornton, who had been one of the premier set-up men over the past few seasons, has regressed into nothing more than a lefty specialist these days. Jacobs, who is described by many as “toolsy,” has seen his production fall off the past couple seasons in the minors (here is a more in-depth write-up for those interested). Jacobs has potential and is essentially a boom-or-bust type of prospect that the White Sox can afford to take a risk on.

Despite being almost 20 games under .500, the Sox still have numerous pieces that contending teams will be looking to get. New General Manager Rick Hahn recently discussed his satisfaction with the team’s pitching, but noted the team has a lack of run-producers. Years of ignoring the development of a minor league system in hopes of contending has really begun to rear its ugly head. The White Sox are devoid of any top-notch talent to the point that they were one of only two teams to not register a top 50 prospect on Baseball America’s mid-season report.

While Hahn may be hesitant to deal some of the pitching, there’s no glaring reason why he shouldn’t at least listen to trade offers for every player on the team, with the exception of Chris Sale – although an argument can be made for him as well. Contending teams are always searching for pitching, and the Sox should take advantage of their one “strength” by trying to re-tool the farm with higher-end talent.

ESPN’s Buster Olney mentioned that the White Sox have been scouting Arizona Diamondbacks games recently. The Diamondbacks have numerous young pitching prospects such as Randall Delgado, Tyler Skaggs, and Archie Bradley. Skaggs and Bradley are likely off-limits, but if the Sox are able to send Peavy and net Delgado in return, the Sox would get a young pitcher with a lot of potential and someone Don Cooper would love to work with.

Beyond Matt Garza, who appears to be the premier starting pitcher on the market, Jake Peavy is the next best option. The Sox will likely activate Peavy from the DL after the All-Star break, and teams like the Texas Rangers, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, or the San Francisco Giants, who might end up balking at the steep price of Garza, will probably turn around and place a call to Hahn about Peavy.

The other major trade chip the White Sox have is Alex Rios. Rios is making $12.5 million this season, and will make $12.5 next season, with a club option for $13.5 million the following year that comes with a $1 million buyout option. In return, Olney reports the Sox are looking for “major-league ready or near-ready prospects.”

The Texas Rangers have had internal discussions regarding Rios, and possess one of the deepest minor league systems in the league. A few prospects that make sense in a Rios trade would be third baseman Mike Olt. He is one of the more advanced bats in the minor leagues, but with Adrian Beltre firmly entrenched in Texas, he could be a great solution at a position the Sox have struggled to fill since Joe Crede’s departure. The Rangers also have another third base prospect, Joey Gallo, who has one of the strongest power tools in the minors, grading out as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Beyond these two hitters, the Rangers have numerous other prospects that could intrigue the Sox.

Beyond the Rangers, the Pirates finally look like a team that can sustain their winning ways and will likely go all-in this season to try to contend. Rios would be a perfect fit in left field, as the current platoon of Jose Tabata and Travis Snider has hit a paltry five home runs and holds a combined slash line of .259/.324/.381. If the Sox were to package Rios and Gordon Beckham to upgrade another hole at second base, they could potentially net a top-level prospect like outfielder Gregory Polanco, or two mid-level guys like shortstop Alen Hanson, right-handed pitcher Luis Heredia, or outfielder Josh Bell.

As October nears, a bullpen’s struggles and successes begin to magnify significantly. Contending teams looking for bullpen help will likely target Jesse Crain and, to a lesser extent, Matt Lindstrom. While Crain is currently on the DL, he is having the best year of his career, and was named to his first All-Star team. The Detroit Tigers could desperately use bullpen help, but it’s doubtful that Hahn will trade anyone within the division. The Diamondbacks, mentioned above, have one of the worst bullpens in the league, having blown 19 saves this season, and they will likely be one of the most aggressive teams in the bullpen market. Other teams in search of bullpen help are the Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The White Sox are in a great position to improve their minor league system, to an extent, over the next couple of weeks. With a bevy of motivated trading partners stocked with deep minor league systems, the Sox should jump at this golden opportunity to get both younger and deeper.

Midseason Evaluation of White Sox Hitters

The White Sox lineup is one of the best in all of baseball.

We are now halfway through the MLB regular season, and the Chicago White Sox are still holding their own and sitting in first place in the AL Central with a three game lead. Amazing. Whether or not the Detroit Tigers will finally start playing up to their potential remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see this White Sox team slowing down anytime soon. They rank fifth in the AL in runs scored (409) and sixth in team ERA (3.91). Since the addition of Kevin Youkilis, the Sox are 10-4, including series wins against the Rangers (sweep) and Blue Jays, and are averaging an incredible 6.14 runs per game.

If you can recall from a couple of months back, I wrote a post titled “By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters,” in which I used Bill James’ Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). Simply put, if a team consisted of nine of the same player, such as nine Paul Konerkos, approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score for their team per game? Instead of using sabermetric measurements that most casual fans don’t understand, such as wins above replacement (WAR), the runs created formula gives us the ability to evaluate the true value that each hitter has brought to his respective lineup thus far this season. Like last time, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created and game outs used for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

Remember, according to Mathletics, “approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).” Hence why we must take .982 of every at-bat instead of 1. Game outs used must then be divided by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game) in order to determine the number of games’ worth of outs used by each hitter. That, ultimately, leaves the most important equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Obviously, runs created per game tells you more about a hitter’s value than total runs created because the latter does not differentiate between bad hitters with a lot of plate appearances and great hitters with less plate appearances. That being said, take a look at the numbers below:

Youk’s numbers are clearly inflated due to how great he’s been in a White Sox uniform in only 49 at-bats, so the 10.05 runs created per game is bound to go down. However, it’s important to point out that, between 2008-2010, Youkilis managed to create 8.39, 8.61 and 8.92 runs respectively. Although he only averaged 427 at-bats the last two seasons of that span due to a variety of injuries, those numbers are still pretty unbelievable. If there’s anything to take away from the chart, it’s this: Brent Morel is bad. Like really bad. Sox fans should be kissing Kenny Williams’ and Rick Hahn’s asses every single day for the rest of the season for trading a couple of crackerjacks for Youkilis. That should end up going down as the best trade of the year for any one team.

If you move on down the line, everything seems to make sense. Paul Konerko continues to do what Paul Konerko does, taunting opposing pitchers to the tune of a .329 batting average and .904 OPS. The dude just doesn’t seem to let up and remains one of the most consistent hitters in all of baseball. He has been the most valuable hitter in the Sox lineup all season long, but at this point in his career, no baseball fan needs statistics to help him/her figure that out.

The biggest surprise this season has to be Alex Rios. He’s quietly having a monstrous turnaround season, ranking fifth in the AL in hits with 101 and 11th in total bases with 166. He’s also second on the team with a .318 average and leads the team in extra-base hits with 36 (tied with Dunn). To put into perspective how truly great he has been this season, take a look at last year’s numbers:

Rios has already created more runs midway through this season than he did all of last season. Quite frankly, he was atrocious last year, and Sox fans had all but given up on him. But, as Rios has proven, it’s never too late to turn things around. Somewhere, Adam Dunn is nodding aggressively.

Alexei Ramirez has certainly gotten better since we last calculated these numbers (was creating 1.75 runs per game seven weeks into the season), but he still remains dead last among every day Sox hitters in runs created per game. He barely ever walks (his on-base percentage is a measly .287) and only has 17 extra-base hits, also good for last on the team. It seems as if Ramirez will continue to shit on White Sox brass as he rakes in his $8 million per year, but as I just pointed out, there’s always room for improvement.

The 2012 season is moving fast and the dog days of summer are rapidly approaching. With only 77 games left, the White Sox are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The second half of the season is going to be a grind, but if the Sox can maintain these hot bats, they should have no problem getting to October.

South Side Snubs from the Midsummer Classic

A.J. Pierzynski and Jake Peavy are two of the biggest snubs from this year’s All-Star game.

It happens every single year. Players who deserve to make the All-Star team don’t, and players who don’t necessarily deserve to make it  do. Part of it has to do with stupid or biased fans, part of it has to do with the Player Ballot — a vote of the players, managers and coaches — voting just because they have to, and part of it has to do with the manager being forced to fill a roster with at least one player from every team. As unfair as it may be, all-star voting in sports will probably never change. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t still bitch about players like A.J. Pierznyski and Jake Peavy being left off the team. With the All-Star game actually having meaning (the winner gives its league champion home-field advantage in the playoffs), you’d think that Ron Washington’s formerly coked-out mind and the players’ around the American League would want two of the best players at their respective positions to be a part of their roster. Guess they don’t care as much as we’d like.

As I said a couple of weeks ago in my “White Sox Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game”  post, I knew it would be difficult for Pierzynski to break his six-year all-starless streak, because Rangers fans are all over Mike Napoli’s nuts and made sure he’d (undeservedly) start behind the plate for the American League. Unfortunately, it was the players, and not the fans, who voted for Matt Wieters over Pierzynski to back up Napoli instead. How dumb are they, you ask? Well, Pierzynski has Wieters beat in batting average by 36 points (.287 to .251), slugging percentage by almost 100 points (.524 to .431), hits, home runs, RBIs and runs. It’s not like the second-place Orioles had no one else to send to the game; Adam Jones is a legitimate candidate for AL MVP, and Jim Johnson has been one of the best, if not the best, closers in baseball with an ML-leading 25 saves thus far this season. There’s been a lot of talk about AL manager Ron Washington screwing up by picking Joe Mauer, but I can’t blame him. The Twins needed someone, and if it wasn’t going to be Josh Willingham, then Mauer and his .327 batting average would have to do. Regardless, A.J. was upset with Washington anyways and gave him a good ‘ol “eff you” on Tuesday night with a three-run bomb in the fifth inning of a 19-2 beat down of the Rangers. He should’ve made the team. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

As for Jake Peavy, let’s just say it’s a travesty that he didn’t make the All-Star team this year. Forget the Final Vote – it’s not the fans’ fault that Peavy didn’t make it. Yu Darvish had the entire continent of Asia voting for him. No one else on the final ballot stood even a puncher’s chance. We can blame Washington for whiffing on this one. I don’t mean to take away from the great season that Rangers’ starting pitcher Matt Harrison is having, but this couldn’t have been a more biased pick. Peavy has a better ERA (2.96 to 3.10), WHIP (0.99 to 1.24), strikeouts (101 to 70), K/9 (8.07 to 5.06) and opponents’ batting average (.215 to .263). Pretty much every single pitching category, besides record (Harrison is 11-4 and Peavy is 6-5), belongs to Peavy, so the decision to leave him off the roster is just stupid. Not to mention, the great Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated has Peavy as runner-up to Justin Verlander for AL Cy Young midway through the season. That’s gotta count for something.

After battling injury after injury and almost calling it quits before having experimental shoulder surgery performed on him a few years back, it would have been one hell of a story to see a suited-up Peavy in Kansas City for his third all-star appearance. Instead, like Pierzynski, he’ll be watching the game from his couch like me and you. The difference is they wipe their asses with $1 bills; I wipe my ass with toilet paper and the occasional baby wipe. Pierzynski and Peavy will get over their snubbings if they haven’t already. It just seems ridiculous that the best catcher (statistically) in the AL and a potential AL Cy Young candidate will not be making an appearance at Kauffman Stadium this year.

White Sox Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game

After a successful first half of the season, the White Sox are primed to send multiple players to the Midsummer Classic.

If you had told me last winter that the Chicago White Sox would essentially be in first place in the AL Central (only a half game back) and 2.5 games ahead of the pre-season overwhelming favorite Detroit Tigers by late June, I would have considered hosting an intervention for you in which the possibility of sending you to an insane asylum would have been discussed. To think that the Sox would be this good halfway through the season was unfathomable, and I’d bet that most Sox fans would agree. Players who were seeing the baseball as a golf ball last year are seeing it as a beach ball this year. The runs are up, the bullpen ERA is down, and there’s many guys worthy of making the All-Star team. It’s an exciting time to be a Sox fan, and there’s a lot to look forward to over the next few months and beyond. That being said, let’s take a look at who those worthy players are:

Chris Sale, Starting Pitcher

Given the way he has pitched this season, one would have to think that Chris Sale has been pitching at the major league level for years. His path to stardom is well ahead of schedule, as he has looked nothing short of magnificent thus far this season. Sale ranks second in the American League in wins (tied at 8), third in ERA (2.47), fourth in WHIP (1.00), third in opponent’s batting average (.197) and fifth in K/9 (9.19, ranking him ahead of C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander AND Felix Hernandez). He has, without question, been one of the two or three best pitchers in the American League , and I don’t see him slowing down. Don’t be surprised if he not only makes the All-Star team but also starts for the AL come July 10. Clearly, most baseball fans would like to see Justin Verlander take the mound, but if he ends up making a start for Detroit less than five days before the game (or just decides he doesn’t want to pitch), Jim Leyland would have no problem telling him off. That would leave Sale, who deserves the starting nod as much as anyone.

Jake Peavy, Starting Pitcher

You can’t mention Chris Sale without mentioning Jake Peavy these days. The other half of this dynamic duo is in the middle of a coming of age season as he attempts to win the second Cy Young Award of his, what many would consider a very unlucky, and somewhat disappointing, career. After a number of shoulder injuries and a nearly career-ending experimental surgery in which the surgeon had to reattach a key tendon to the rear of his right shoulder, Peavy is finally back to old form. At 6-3, he ranks fourth in the American League in innings pitched (98.2), sixth in ERA (2.74), second in WHIP (0.97), fourth in opponent’s batting average (.198) and ninth in both strikeouts (83) and BB/9 (2.10). Of his 14 starts, 12 (repeat: 12) of them have been considered quality. Coincidentally, those other two are the only two starts in which he has given up more than three earned runs all season long. Amazing.

Peavy’s miracle season has been one of the best stories in baseball this year. After all he has been through over the past few years, making the All-Star team would really be something special.

A.J. Pierzynski, Catcher

I can’t remember the last time A.J. Pierzynski had a bad season in the majors, if ever, but it sure as hell wasn’t while wearing a White Sox uniform. Year after year, the dude just puts up solid offensive numbers across the board and continues to stay vastly underrated. It has been six years since Pierzynski’s made the All-Star team, but this might be the year he finally breaks that streak. He leads all AL catchers in RBIs (41), total bases (110) and runs scored (32 — tied with Minnesota’s Joe Mauer and Texas’ Mike Napoli), and he trails only Mauer in hits with 62 and Boston’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia in home runs with 12. Who knew the 35-year-old backstop still had it in him? With Napoli undeservedly leading the way in voting so far, it’s going to be tough for A.J. to beat out two of three great catchers in Mauer, Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Saltalamacchia, but stranger things have certainly happened.

Paul Konerko, First Baseman

Just another under-the-radar season for Paulie Konerko. Time and time again, Konerko seems to remind all baseball fans that, although he’s getting older, he has no intentions whatsoever of slowing down. If you sat here and told me that he will continue to hit like this until the age of 40, I’d probably agree. But regardless of how good we think he’ll be in four or five years, right now is all that really matters. Through the first half of the season, Konerko is leading the American League with an incredulous .354 batting average and .426 on-base percentage. He also ranks fourth in hits (81) and slugging percentage (.585), which are both good for first among first basemen. Konerko leads all first basemen in home runs with 13 (Adam Dunn and Billy Butler are designated hitters, so they don’t count in my mind) and total bases (134), and he’s fourth in RBIs (39). It never ceases to amaze me how great this guy continues to be. With Prince Fielder likely to get the starting nod at first base, Rangers’ manager Ron Washington will have slow-starting guys like Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Mark Teixeira to choose from in addition to Konerko. I’d like to think that the current AL batting leader will be at the very top of his list.

Adam Dunn, Designated Hitter

Everyone knows the Adam Dunn story by now – he batted .159 last season and sucked beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations. But, 2011 proved to be a fluke, as Dunn has reverted back to old form, smashing baseballs out of any and every ballpark like it’s no one’s business. He leads the majors with 23 dingers and 55 walks. He’s also third in the AL in RBIs with 53 (first among DH), seventh in slugging percentage at .554 and tenth in total bases at 133 (both rank him third among DH). The only thing really holding Sox fans back from bowing down to this beast is his terrible .225 batting average and 109 strikeouts, which is 26 more than the next player. However, a low average, high strikeout totals and a boatload of home runs has been the story of Dunn’s 12-year career, so it just comes with the territory. He deserves to be considered for the All-Star team, that’s for sure, but there’s a lot of competition at DH this year. I smell a candidate for the Final Vote, but only time will tell.

Who I would pick: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzysnki 

There should not even be a debate about Sale and Peavy — they’ve been two of the most consistent pitchers in all of baseball this year, and without them, the White Sox would arguably be a last place team right now. They’ve been that valuable.

If it was up to me, Paul Konerko would be starting at first base for the American League in a few weeks. But, seeing as how there are millions of other fans out there voting, my opinion pretty much means jack. Nevertheless, even when Prince Fielders wins the vote, Konerko should easily make the roster as the second or third first baseman. If he’s not, then Ron Washington is clearly still blowing lines during his free time and is only picking players based on name alone.

The most debatable guy on my list is Pierzynski. His stats alone should make him an All-Star, but because Mike Napoli is projected to win the starting gig, one spot gets taken from a guy who actually deserves to make the team. Both teams usually bring three catchers to the All-Star game though, so Pierzynski should still make it because of how valuable he has been to the Sox lineup.

I’m not picking Dunn because, assuming David Ortiz wins the vote for DH, there are still too many other guys at the position worthy of making the team. You have to remember that every team gets at least one All-Star. Coincidentally, the two best options along with Dunn (Kansas City’s Billy Butler and Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion) have each been the best players for their respective teams this season, so there’s a good chance that one of them makes it instead. Even if Dunn doesn’t make the team, he still has a shot at making Robinson Cano’s Home Run Derby squad and, as I said before, there’s a possibility he makes it to the Final Vote, which would leave his fate in the hands of the fans.

Who will be picked: Chris Sale, Jake Peavy, Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski

Dunn won’t make it for the reasons I just stated. If Pierzynski doesn’t make it, it’s for reasons very similar to Dunn — there must be an All-Star from every team. Because of that, Joe Mauer who, as you know, plays for the horrific Minnesota Twins, should be a no-brainer for the American League staff as the backup catcher and lone Twin to make the team. But, assuming the AL goes with three catchers, Pierzynski should easily get selected over Wieters and Saltalamacchia. If he doesn’t, it’ll just go to show you how truly under-appreciated he is around the league.

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Cubs Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game

Like every MLB team, the Cubs are guaranteed to get at least one All-Star this season.

Newsflash: the Cubs are bad. Like really bad. With the Crosstown Series officially over until next season, the only things Cubs fans can really look forward to are seeing Anthony Rizzo in white with blue pinstripes and spending Saturday afternoons (or any day of the week for that matter) getting absolutely hammered in Wrigleyville before and after games. Life can be worse, that’s for sure, but having a winning team to root for wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

It makes me sick to think that just four years ago, this was a team that sent a total of eight players to the All-Star Game. Now, we’re struggling to find more than a couple of guys who deserve to even be in consideration. With the Midsummer Classic just three weeks away, baseball fans on the North Side will finally get to watch some legitimate baseball (for one night), and at least one of the players participating in that game will reign from the corner of Addison and Clark. Which Cub deserves to be the team’s likely lone all-star, you ask? Well, let’s break down their top candidates and see who we come up with.

Ryan Dempster, Starting Pitcher

As crazy as it sounds, Ryan Dempster has quietly been one of the five or six best pitchers in the National League this season. His 2.11 ERA ranks him third overall for starting pitchers across the Majors, and nine out of his 12 starts have been considered quality ones (6+ innings pitched, 3 earned runs or less). His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) thus far (1.02) is the lowest it has EVER been in his 15-year career, which is an amazing feat for a 35-year-old pitcher who has always had some trouble finding the plate and preventing hitters from getting on base.

Unfortunately, Dempster only has three wins to show for his incredible first half (all of which came in his last three starts), but that has almost nothing to do with him and everything to do with the abysmal Cubs hitters, who have failed to score more than three runs in seven of his 12 starts. But wins aside, Dempster has been far and away the best pitcher on the Cubs and will undoubtedly make any contender happy for the last two months of the season when he gets traded. As he sits on the DL with mysterious “back tightness,” one would have to suspect that Dempster’s time in Chicago may be coming to an end sooner than expected. Whether he manages to stay a Cub until July 10 or not remains to be seen, but he definitely deserves a spot on this list.

Starlin Castro, Shortstop

Yes, he ranks second among all every day players in errors with 12 (tied with Giants’ Brandon Crawford and one behind Dodgers’ Dee Gordon). And yes, he ranks 19th among 24 every day shortstops with a .956 fielding percentage. But Starlin Castro is still the best pure hitting shortstop in the National League (and arguably the ML), and that’s really all that matters when it comes to making the All-Star team. He currently leads the Cubs in hits (85), average (.302) and total bases (125), and he’s second on the team in runs scored (33), RBIs (38)  and stolen bases (16). The only thing holding him back from true stardom is his inability to walk (he has only six walks with a horrendous .316 on-base percentage), but that’s another conversation for another day.

At the moment, Castro is sitting in third place among NL shortstops in all-star voting (~700,000 votes behind Rafael Furcal for first), making it very unlikely that we’ll see him starting for the National League in a few weeks. It looks as if Castro’s all-star fate will rest in the hands of the players, coaches and managers around the league. With the numbers he has put up so far this season, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Castro gets selected for his second consecutive all-star game.

Bryan Lahair, First Base

Once upon a time, Bryan Lahair was a 32nd round nobody out of St. Petersburg Junior College. Ten years, two short Major League stints, a Pacific Coast League MVP and a whole lot of perseverance later, he has become one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball. With the Cubs in rebuilding mode, Lahair was called upon to be the guy-who-plays-first-base-against-righties-only until Anthony Rizzo came to town. Then, it would be to the bench as a utility player/pinch-hitter or maybe even back to the minors. Clearly, Lahair never got that memo, as he obliterated major league pitching throughout the month of April and made it loud and clear that he is more than worthy of starting every day at the major league level, whether it be playing an unnatural position in right field for the Cubs or playing first base/DH elsewhere. He leads the club in home runs (tied with Soriano at 13), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.563), and he’s second on the team in extra-base hits (25).

Due to the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the National League over the past two years, as well as Ryan Howard’s torn achilles tendon, the crop of talent at first base is at an all-time low, which means there’s no better time for Lahair to accomplish something no Cubs fan would have ever expected him to accomplish coming into this season: making the All-Star team. Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are unquestionably the two best first baseman in the NL right now and are virtual locks to make the All-Star team. But after them, you’d have to make a very strong case to convince me that Lahair is NOT the next best player at his position (Adam Laroche may have more RBIs, but the average and OPS aren’t even close, in favor of Lahair). If the retired Tony LaRussa decided he wanted three first baseman on his All-Star roster, I would like to think that Lahair would be his third guy. After witnessing a journeyman knuckleballer become the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award while throwing 41 consecutive scoreless innings and back-to-back complete game one-hitters (that would be R.A. Dickey if you haven’t caught on), nothing in baseball would shock me anymore. And that includes Bryan Lahair becoming an All-Star.

Alfonso SorianoOutfield

The way Soriano’s career has panned out in Chicago over the past few years, never did I think he’d make it to this list. But here we are, near the end of June, and Soriano leads the team in home runs (13), RBIs (43) and extra-base hits (26), and he ranks second in slugging percentage (.485) and OPS (.800). He has also been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last month (10 homers, 21 RBIs, 18 runs and 61 total bases). Who knew? Whether you think Soriano deserves to be in consideration for an All-Star selection or not, I had to put him on here because, after all the negative things I’ve said about him over the years, he really has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs this season, and I commend him for it. I understand that there are a plethora of outfielders to choose from, so he probably doesn’t stand a chance at making the team anyways. But for the first time in four years, I am actually proud of Fonsi. That should count for something.

Who I would pick: Starlin Castro 

Although all of these guys are equally deserving in my mind (except for maybe Soriano), I would pick Castro because a) as I said before, he has become the best pure hitting shortstop in the NL, and b) there is a severe lack of depth at the shortstop position this season. With Troy Tulowitzki out for the next 2+ months with a torn groin (ouch?), and Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins stinking it up worse than a fat kid’s dutch oven, Castro is easily the best candidate of all (and that’s assuming the mildly overrated Rafael Furcal wins the starting gig). If Castro fails to make the All-Star team, it’ll just be stupid.

Who will be picked: Starlin Castro 

If the NL decides to go with two first baseman (or picks Laroche as the third guy), making Lahair the odd man out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And because there are so many great pitchers to choose from (R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Lance Lynn, James McDonald, Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Johan Santana, among others), the NL can survive without Dempster as well. That, along with my reasoning above, makes picking Starlin Castro the most logical choice. Since the Cubs are so bad, they will almost certainly get only one all-star (if they get more, I’ll be pleasantly stunned). Ultimately, this is how it will probably play out.

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Hip Hip, Jorge!

Cubs fans should be thrilled about the signing of Jorge Soler.

Six months I’ve waited for this. At the beginning of this year, there were three Cuban defectors that many baseball fans started to become familiar with: Yoenis Cespedes, Jorge Soler, and Gerardo Concepcion. Cespedes was the best prospect simply because of his age (26) and experience. The Cubs easily won the Concepcion sweepstakes over ten teams or so, inking the 18-year-old left-handed pitcher to a $7 million major league contract. Cubs brass then made a big push to get Cespedes, but the Oakland A’s ultimately won out. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me much. I knew that once the Cubs actually became competitive again (another 3-4 years), Cespedes would already be closing in on 30 years of age. For a team that had no intentions of winning now and every intention of building for the future, it made sense to go for the 20-year-old Soler, who wasn’t granted free agency until June 2. So once Cespedes was off the market, that’s exactly what Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer did.

For months, I’ve been infatuated with the idea of the Cubs signing Soler. That idea finally became a reality when Soler chose the North Side as his future home yesterday afternoon, agreeing to a nine-year, $30 million deal. It will cover Soler’s minor league time and most, if not all, of his major league time in Chicago. At 6’3 200 pounds, he has incredible raw power and bat speed, game-changing ability, and the potential to do some serious damage in the middle of the Cubs order (which will contain the likes of Anthony Rizzo and hopefully Albert Almora) in the near future. Scouts have been comparing him favorably to the 22-year-old behemoth that is Giancarlo Stanton, the Miami Marlins star right fielder. Here is what ESPN’s lead baseball analyst for Scouts Inc., Keith Law, had to say about Soler after the signing:

Jorge Soler, the 20-year-old Cuban outfielder the Cubs agreed to terms with today, can show you four plus tools, and there’s enough bat speed and hand strength for him to end up with all five. He has All-Star potential for the Cubs if they’re patient enough to wait the 2-3 years he’ll take in an optimistic scenario before he is big-league ready…

…Had Soler been in this year’s draft, he would probably have been a top-five pick on merit, definitely in the top 10.

Top-five pick? That means Soler’s potential is equivalent, or near equivalent, to that of soon-to-be stud outfielders Byron Buxton (Twins), David Dahl (Rockies), and the Cubs very own Albert Almora. He’s also a very instinctive outfielder with a fantastic arm (Baseball Prospect Nation ranked his arm 60/60 and his fielding 50/60) and can cover a lot of ground with his underrated speed (pretty much the anti-Alfonso Soriano). In other words, Soler has a classic right field profile – a perfect future complement to Brett Jackson in left and Albert Almora in center. If that doesn’t make you salivate, I don’t know what else, besides Portillo’s italian beef, will.

For the first time in a long time, the Cubs are building a powerhouse from within. It’s time to get excited about what the future may hold for us, as the farm system is loaded up with some promising young hitters in Rizzo, Jackson, Almora, Javier Baez and now Soler. Pitching is still a major hole, but that issue has been, and will continue to be, addressed. The Cubs drafted over 20 pitchers in last week’s draft and have Dillon Maples, among others, developing in their farm system. I’d like to think that at least one or two of them will pan out and become solid starters or even solid relievers (I don’t ask for much in life, so if The Man Upstairs can hear me right now, how ’bout a little help, big guy?). Assuming the Cubs trade Dempster at the deadline, it doesn’t hurt to hope that a desperate team looking to make a push will give us a decent pitching package. Matt Garza also has tremendous value to teams like the Detroit Tigers (Jacob Turner, please?), so it shouldn’t surprise any of us if he goes too. However, if the Cubs decide to keep Garza and resign him at some point, that would be great as well. Plus, there’s always free agency – the time of the year that Theo Epstein makes other executives feel smaller than Leslie Chow’s… well, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, then you’ve probably never seen The Hangover. And that’s a serious issue.

Six months I waited for Jorge Soler. As Cub fans, being patient is in our nature. If there are 103-year old Cub fans who are still out there waiting (and bravo if you are really alive at the age of 103), then what’s another three or four years to us of waiting for a perennial playoff contender? Something tells me it will be well worth that small wait soon enough.

For an in-depth scouting report on Soler, click here.

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